Well The Blackbirder proved to be just the very thing I needed as I came to the end of my first full week back at work. A piece of brilliant, literary escapism, The Blackbirder is forties noir, by an author often acknowledged as a master of the genre. My only other experience of Dorothy B Hughes is The Expendable Man which I read a few years ago – re-issued by Persephone books if you haven’t come across it, I urge you to do so it is absolutely brilliant. Back to the Blackbirder then, a book I loved so much I immediately ordered a Penguin Classics edition of In a Lonely Place – it seems many of her books are now available only as ebooks.
“The waiter was looking at her. Not just looking. He was watching. Under black caterpillar eyebrows, his cold little black eyes were crawling on her face
She whispered, ‘the waiter is looking at me.’ For a moment she thought she had said it out loud, that Maxl had heard her. Her lips had moved but she hadn’t spoken, only to herself. She mustn’t let Maxl guess that she had noticed the waiter. Maxl might have ordered the man to watch.”
Julie Guille is in New York, having escaped from occupied Paris, she is on the run from the gestapo and the FBI – her entry into the US illegal. She has been lying low in a rented apartment, biding her time, trying to forget the girl she used to be. In Paris she had been glamorous, groomed, before she felt the need to flee from the Nazis and her malevolent guardian Uncle Paul; Duc de Guille. One night at Carnegie she runs into a young man she knew slightly in Paris, Maxl – Julie can’t be sure – was their meeting accident or design. Not everyone is who they seem, but Julie can never let her suspicions show, she agrees to a drink with Maxl, where she is convinced she is being watched by the waiter. Maxl insists on showing Julie home in a taxi, moments after Julie enters her apartment, Maxl lies dead on the pavement outside. So starts Julie’s flight from New York, aboard a train via Chicago, headed for Santa Fe, in search ultimately for the elusive Blackbirder. The Blackbirder aids refugees across the border to New Mexico, and with Maxl dead outside her apartment, and the gestapo, FBI and her guardian all looking for her, he is, Julie is convinced her best chance of escape from the US.
“She had to watch her money. Nineteen hundred to see her through. It seemed a vast sum but it wasn’t. Because she was going to some far off place called Santa Fe and she didn’t want to be inconspicuous there. She was going as Julie Guille and she hoped someone would recognize the name. Someone who watched for refugees. Someone who was blackbirding.”
On board train Julie meets a kindly older woman, travelling to see her daughter who is having a baby, she is also made very aware of a man, the grey man she calls him. The grey man is always there, at every moment, is he simply making the same journey? or is he someone more sinister than that. The grey man tries to engage her in conversation, puts Julie on her guard; he seems always one step ahead.
Julie is beset with anxieties, and suspicions, but she never lets her mask slip, she‘s watchful, paranoid, very afraid of being locked up as she was in France. Who is the Blackbirder? Will she be able to find him? and will he help her, and what of her beloved cousin Fran, imprisoned last she heard, could The Blackbirder help him too?
Once in Santa Fe, Julie is astonished to see Jacques, a friend of hers and Fran who once worked for her Uncle, whose wife died helping Julie escape from France. Jacques works for a local artist Mr Popin, could he be the Blackbirder? The grey man is still on her heels, staying at the same hotel – he claims to be called Roderick Blaike, injured from the RAF and he manages to get an invitation to view Mr Popin’s artwork at his remote home in Tesuque. During a snowstorm Julie and Blaike take a bus to Tesuque to meet Mr Popin, at the back of the bus sits a man Julie recognises from the night Maxl was murdered. From here things really get tense, is anyone who they say they are? Who if anyone can Julie trust?
“Julie turned to the interior. Blaike was at her shoulder waiting for her to move. She didn’t. She looked up the short aisle at a man with a black bowler potted on his round head. He was wedged into the exact center of the long back seat. He appeared hot and cramped yet stolidly unconscious of discomfort. His thick fingers were interlaced on his knees. The lustreless black eyes didn’t move nor did they light. But he saw her. He couldn’t help but see her.”
Julie Guille is a brilliant heroine, resourceful and tough, she’s believable, and feminine without ever using her sexuality to get what she wants. The Blackbirder is a fantastic page turner, very well written with locations every bit as fascinating as the characters I was really rather sorry when it was over.